Lowest, lower, lowish and high maintenance gardening

“What do you think is the lowest maintenance form of gardening?” I asked Mark.

His response was immediate: “Plant shrubs and spray the ground beneath with RoundUp.”

He is right. All outdoor space needs some maintenance just as we routinely maintain indoors. Even if you concrete or deck most of your area, it still needs some attention. The concrete will need sweeping and probably some attention to moss growth with weeds finding purchase in any cracks or natural build-up of litter. Using pavers or cobbles requires quite a bit more attention as there are many more opportunities for weeds to get established. And lawns – or mown grass if that better describes your green sward – needs regular mowing even if you ignore all the other interventions and care that many lavish on their lawn.

Probably the most memorable wild garden I have seen but it was in harsh conditions which would restrict growth, on a big scale, created with skill and while lower in maintenance requirements, it was not free of any need for some gardening interventions.

How about wild gardens? Yes, that is a lower maintenance style of garden but it also takes a much higher level of skill to find the right balance. There is a fine line between a wild garden and an unkempt wilderness. The same goes for cottage gardening. It is a fine line and quite a bit of skill that differentiates a cottage garden from a wild garden. The wild look will not appeal to many (most?) people who just want a tidy back yard. Wild gardens are an acquired and thoughtful taste.

I don’t take many photos of Mark’s vegetable garden because it leans to the wild side but he can tell you after growing vegetables all our married life that it is anything but low maintenance.

Vegetable gardening is anything but low maintenance. Don’t believe any of the trite commentary that you can have a productive vegetable garden with very little effort. You can’t. Getting a decent crop and some continuity in supply takes a whole lot more work on an ongoing basis. What about trendy food forests?  It takes an even higher level of skill to manage a productive food forest. You actually need to know what you are doing if you want regular harvests. In less skilled hands, a food forest will soon morph into a wild garden on track to becoming a wilderness with very little food produced for humans, although the birds, insects, rats, mice and rabbits may thank you.

By our standards, our shade gardens are on the much lower maintenance side

Shade gardens tend to be lower maintenance because plant growth is much slower in areas without sun and the soil is not cultivated to the same extent. The shade and woodland areas here are the lowest maintenance areas we have and I can say that confidently with decades of experience. They are less demanding even, than the sunny meadow. But they are not no-maintenance, just lower maintenance and that is all dependent on tree cover. New Zealanders are not known for a love of trees in domestic gardens – maybe because our housing stock is not generally of high quality and we want all the solar warmth and light we can get.

No, truly, this lovely summer scene of Scadoxus katherinae really is very low maintenance in the shade

The risk with trees is greater if you get the selection wrong in the first place, or the placement wrong and then fail to carry out maintenance as required to ensure that it is a good shape and in good health. The cost of remedial work or removal of an established tree is a whole lot higher than a shrub. That is why Mark recommends keeping to shrubs if you want low maintenance.

If money is no object, you can have what you want. You can pay a good designer and then pay a skilled maintenance crew to come in and do the work but it will be an ongoing commitment. Just as houses need cleaning, attractive outdoor spaces and gardens need attention too.

This particular formal garden was not low budget but I lack photos of the DIY low budget/low maintenance option that I consider is much less demanding of both skill and maintenance.

If you are operating on a lower budget, my advice given in earlier posts stands: plant a formal garden with a very limited range of plants. It is all about the look, the photograph. In practical terms, it takes regular attention to maintain the pristine level of care a formal garden requires but there is no great skill in carrying that out. You don’t need a competent gardener to maintain that, just somebody with a penchant for tidiness.

Apartment living avoids the expectation to maintain the outdoors area

If you can’t afford to pay somebody to come in and do your outside maintenance that you don’t wish to do yourself, and you live in a city, then buy an upper floor apartment. The body corporate will take responsibility for all the shared outdoor space. If you buy an apartment that looks out over green space and trees, the view may be all you need.

Or plant shrubs and buy a sprayer and a good supply of glyphosate. Not that I am recommending this as desirable, but it is a lower maintenance option. Shun detail and shun underplanting.

Our Wild North Garden will remain wild but not a wilderness

This train of thought came about because I am much absorbed by our perennial gardens – the new summer gardens, the semi-wild Iolanthe cottage garden and the Wild North Garden. We have a new part-time gardener. This is very exciting for us – a strong, young person with some skills is like a breath of fresh air in our ageing establishment. His first project is working in the Wild North Garden to get it to a standard that we think necessary before we open it to garden visitors.  Meantime, I am taking apart and completely replanting the perennials in a little-noticed shrub and perennial border that edges the sunken garden area. It was anonymous because it wasn’t working very well and I want more visual oomph.

An anonymous sort of border that I felt needed some major tarting up but only of the underplanted perennials

I came to the conclusion that the highest maintenance form of gardening that I can think of is in fact gardening with sunny perennials. It is taking a lot more work than I thought it would. Fortunately, we are of the Christopher Lloyd (he of Great Dixter) school of thought. To paraphrase him in a comment we once saw on TV, “I think you will find that the higher maintenance your garden is, the more interesting it is.” In high maintenance gardening, you notice the detail and the changes, not just the single snap-shot big picture. That is what keeps us absorbed here, even if as it keeps us busy.

Gardening with sunny perennials here has the highest maintenance requirements but we find the rewards outweigh the efforts required. Less enthusiastic gardeners may not.

I just issue the general warning that if you want a low maintenance garden, don’t go down the track of gardening with sunny perennials. At least not in our climate with its benign growing conditions and rampant growth.

13 thoughts on “Lowest, lower, lowish and high maintenance gardening

  1. Paddy Tobin

    It is hard, almost impossible, to avoid work if you wish to have a garden and most gardeners, I think, see the activity of gardening as an essential part of their enjoyment of the garden. Of course, times change and bodies age and it can become necessary to seek a lower maintenance regime. I hope I don’t find this necessary for another while.

    1. Abbie Jury Post author

      I think all gardeners know that having a garden needs work. It is the non-gardeners who want a lovely outside area but specify it must be ‘low maintenance’ that have no idea at all. I have never forgotten the woman who wrote in to a garden magazine requesting a design for her back yard which had to be a fun, funky, colourful food forest but also low maintenance. I would have hit the delete button were I the editor.

      1. Paddy Tobin

        And, it is these same editors who publish articles under the banner of being low maintenance!

  2. tonytomeo

    Much of the landscape outside is forest that I could not maintain if I wanted to. I mean, I can not prune trees that are hundreds of feet tall. They drop their limbs into the forest below. I sort of use the space below the forest for fruit trees, but really do no landscaping out there. Even if I could ‘improve’ the forest, I would not want to. Yes, there is maintained garden, but it is minimal and utilitarian. As much as I enjoy it, I do not want it to interfere with the forest, which is essentially low maintenance.

  3. Pat Webster

    Wild gardens take an enormous level of skill and attention to detail. I visited one in England some years ago that was designed with ‘wild’ in mind. In its heyday, it may have been superb but when I saw it, the balance had tipped and it was simply too overgrown for me.

    The first photo in this post makes me drool. Is it a private or public space? Where?

    1. Abbie Jury Post author

      Thank you, Pat, for picking up on that point about wild gardens in my post. I think they are a lot harder to manage than people think and it takes a very good eye and judgement.
      That photo is of a private garden I visited years ago right on the wild, untamed coast of Kaikoura (so rocky and exposed). It really was magic and a revelation to me about a different approach to gardening. It surrounded what I called a hobbit house – a concrete construction set into the hill so it was invisible from the land-side entry bar a cupola perched on the hill but around the front it had a wall of glass looking out to the landscape. Sadly, I see the owner died some years ago and I have no idea what has happened to it since.

  4. Tim Dutton

    I guess we have a big garden because we enjoy the act of gardening so much. All the same, a garden full of perennials can indeed take up too much time and we plan to plant a few more shrubs to take over from some of the perennials. From our experience the absolute lowest level of maintenance in our garden is the pond, which requires no weeding, no mulching, no dead-heading, no pruning and no spraying. The wild ducks that visit it seem to do a pretty good job of tidying the water lilies in the autumn and that seems to be it so far as maintenance is concerned. The clumps of water lilies gradually get wider over the years, but they are a long way from needing thinning or dividing.

    1. Abbie Jury Post author

      That is well designed pond! Get it wrong and they too can be high maintenance.
      You clarified for me – the difference between those of us who see gardening as an active process that we enjoy and those who see a garden as a desirable end product but take no great pleasure in the process of getting there. Thanks for that.

      1. Tim Dutton

        The pond may be as much by luck as by design. It was scooped out of solid clay by bulldozer. The water lilies grow in the ooze that has accumulated at the bottom over the years. The edges are ringed by rocks or manuka stakes, which we put in as the ducks eroded the banks so much in the early years. We have a very few marginals and no oxygenating plants at all. Yet it contains masses of aquatic insect life, tadpoles and frogs in the summer and has been known to contain eels (so probably does all the time). Ducks love it and we now get hundreds of water lily blooms every summer.

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